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School's lunchroom is forever hers

It is rare when a lunchroom lady inspires more than jokes about hair nets or mystery meat. Bettye Dixon is different.

So special, in fact, that the staff and students of Garland V. Stewart Middle School are preparing to name the cafeteria for her.

"You about as shocked as I was. I had never heard of that as long as I've been in food service," said Dixon, 54, who retired as lunchroom manager in June.

Each morning for 40 years, Dixon made her way to Stewart, two stories of red brick and stone on Spruce Street in downtown Tampa.

She came first as a student, when Stewart was all-black Blake High and she walked from her mother's place in North Boulevard Homes, a public housing complex adjacent to the campus. She graduated in 1961 and started work in the lunchroom.

By 1973, integration had turned Blake into a seventh-grade center. Dixon drove there from a new apartment a few blocks away. This year, Stewart became a middle school.

But no matter how the school or the community around it changed, everyone knew where to find Dixon. As manager for a decade, Dixon had an officebehind the kitchen's stainless steel serving counters. It was always open to a child with a story.

The stories all began the same: "Somebody stole my lunch money ." Dixon would serve up another emergency lunch. The kids would talk, and she would listen.

Sometimes it was stone-faced high school boys whose stepfathers drank too much. Once, it was a 12-year-old worried she might be pregnant.

"I just realized why kids act like they do, because of things happening at home. They just want to know somebody cares," said Dixon, a large woman with unlined skin and soft, curly black hair threaded with gray.

Watts Sanderson, principal at Stewart for eight years, said Dixon made him the "heavy" when it came time to call in the lunch-money loans.

"Kids hadn't paid her back in months because she just couldn't get on their case . She just didn't have the heart to give them a choker," he said, using a term for the peanut butter and bread lunches that schools often give to students who forget money.

"Out of all the schools I went to, she was the only lunch person I talked to," said Lali Mercado, 13, an eighth-grader.

But it wasn't just the students who found their way back to Dixon's office.

At her retirement luncheon, teachers, custodians and even the assistant principal stood to say how much they would miss their talks with Dixon. None had been aware that others had sought out the smile in the back of the lunchroom, the conversations punctuated by drawn-out cries of "Hon-ey," and a deep belly laugh.

"'I thought I was the only one getting the love," said Michelle Loango, 33, a former Stewart teacher who now teaches at Dowdell Middle School.

Forty years at one school means Dixon remembers when everything wasn't frozen, when cooking for hundreds of students meant peeling all the potatoes, baking cakes and cooking turkeys "as big as babies" for basketball banquets. About the time integration changed Blake, all that stopped, Dixon said.

"But they still don't want the vegetable. They never wanted the vegetable," she said.

It seems to Dixon that kids used to be easier to talk to, as well.

"Way back in the day, you could reprimand a child and they'll do what you say. Now you do that, and these kids will curse you out," she said.

It's an attitude, she said, that also emanates from North Boulevard Homes today.

"It's about the times, baby. People here don't care how anything looks. No curtains in the windows, things falling down, furniture all out in the yard.

"We lived here. Now look at it. We were proud of where we stayed."

Dixon said she still sees many of her kids, sometimes at the mall and in the neighborhood.

"Well, they don't forget me. They don't forget me when they've grown. They don't forget the lunchroom lady.

"I spent my life here."

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On a recent day in the soon-to-be-dedicated Bettye Dixon Cafeteria, late afternoon sunlight leaked through windows onto a row of brown tables, and the freezer hummed.

As she talked, Dixon rubbed an arthritic knee. So many years of fixing meals have given Dixon arthritis deep in her feet and back.

Currently, there is a shortage of lunchroom workers in Hillsborough, where hourly pay starts at $6.17 and shifts are short to keep district costs on health benefits down.

"That's why these people don't have anybody in these schools. People want benefits. People need benefits," she said.

She moved slowly through the empty kitchen she once ran, from oven to steamer, looking for who knows what. Finally she found it _ a switch mistakenly left on. She turned it off, and winked.